The Detroit Pistons last made the NBA playoffs in 2019, capping Dwane Casey’s first year as head coach. In the years since, the Pistons immersed themselves in another rebuild: They traded that season’s leading scorer (Blake Griffin) and the franchise’s second-leading rebounder (Andre Drummond).
Now, no one remains from the roster general manager Troy Weaver inherited during the summer of 2020.
This season, Detroit will probably finish behind only the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic for the worst record in the league. But the disappointing finish hasn’t dulled the growing optimism for the franchise’s long-term future. Its young core — led by 2021 top overall pick Cade Cunningham — has provided the promising upside Detroit has sought over the years.
Despite their overall struggles, the Pistons showed improvement after the All-Star break. Before an 18-point shellacking at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks on April 6, their net rating of +0.4, ranked ahead of several playoff-bound squads, including the Golden State Warriors (0.0), Mavericks (-0.3) and Chicago Bulls (-6.4). Years of roster shuffling seem to have positioned Detroit with relative stability as the team hones its identity. Its 22 starting lineups this season are the team’s fewest since Casey’s first year in the Motor City.
Over the season, the 2018 Coach of the Year has gotten strong contributions from his promising youngsters: Cunningham and 2020 first-round selections Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey. They’ve been joined by steady veterans like 2020 gold medalist Jerami Grant and 2014 NBA champion Cory Joseph in wins over teams that are contending for the NBA title.
Even when the Pistons have been on the wrong side of the scoreboard, their penchant for playing hard has not gone overlooked by opponents.
“I mean, they’ve been playing solid the last two weeks, though,” Kevin Durant said after the Brooklyn Nets notched a 7-point win over the Pistons on March 29. “We don’t look at teams like that. I know their record isn’t good, but they still got pros over there. … I could see this team being something — a force to be reckoned with in the future.”
Part of that force will certainly be Cunningham, who tied his career-high of 34 points against Brooklyn that night and put some finishing touches on the most productive month of his young pro career. The Arlington, Texas, native was the Pistons’ first overall No. 1 pick since Hall of Famer Bob Lanier in 1970.
Cunningham had a slow start to his NBA career. An ankle injury delayed his debut by four games, and he totaled only 8 points through his first two appearances. But he notched a double-double in his third game as a pro and started to develop his form as his rookie season progressed. By his 11th career NBA game, Cunningham had become the first Pistons rookie with a triple-double since Hall of Famer Grant Hill recorded one in April 1995.
And then came March. Entering the month, Cunningham was tied for 61st among all players in shots attempted from the paint, a far cry from what made him Big 12 Player of the Year in his lone collegiate season. But in March, he found his way to the rim more and more often. The Rookie of the Year candidate ranked fourth among all players in total drives during March, when Cunningham’s 11 20-point games nearly matched his total from October to February combined.
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Cunningham’s knack for getting into the paint has paid off for his teammates, too. His 118 potential assists created when attacking is the highest single-season mark by any Piston over the last five years. Though Detroit will finish 28th in offensive efficiency this season, the team scored 116.1 points per 100 possessions over its 650 minutes with Cunningham on the court after the All-Star break. Over an entire season, such a figure would be top three in the league.
“When you got a 6-7 point guard, I mean, shit, that’s a good start,” Durant said of Cunningham. “You know what I mean? Somebody who can wreck a whole defensive gameplan, you know, with his size, his talent, his skill.”
Cunningham also grew more comfortable in the clutch as the season progressed. Though Detroit was outscored by 41 points in clutch-time situations — in a game’s final five minutes with the score within 5 points — Cunningham ranked seventh in the league in clutch-time scoring after the break. And he was joined on the clutch leaderboard by teammate Bey, who’s tied with Luka DonÄÐÐiÄÐâ¡ and MVP candidate Joel Embiid at 11th.
Bey’s second season as a pro saw him step into the role of Detroit’s volume scorer. He became the youngest player in franchise history to record a 50-point game when the Pistons defeated the Orlando Magic on March 17. The Villanova product is comfortable with taking tough shots (team-high 995 contested shot attempts), and he has given Detroit someone who can carry its offense for extended stretches. And he was one of only two players, along with Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges, to start every game this season.
Though his overall true shooting percentage declined as his shots increased, Bey’s true shooting percentage climbed to 56.7 percent over 22 appearances after the All-Star break, offering a glimpse of what could be as Detroit’s spacing improves.
Of course, offensive possessions don’t create themselves, you know?
Detroit’s defense in the second half of the season (11th in defensive efficiency entering Friday) thrived off players simply playing hard each possession. These young Pistons have flashed active hands (tied for fifth with 15.4 deflections per game over that span) and quick reactions (seventh with 54.1 shots contested) while learning the ropes of disrupting offensive gameplans.
Casey has shown great pride in his team’s ability to play “a complete 48” and growing knack for matching an opponent’s intensity throughout a game. Detroit currently leads the league in guarding direct isolations resulting in a turnover, and the elements are in place for the Pistons to build on such an active approach.
Players like Hayes and Stewart have been key to the Pistons’ scrappy and hustle-hard approach. Stewart, who stepped up as the team’s starting center, has been one of the league’s most versatile defenders, allowing Detroit to comfortably switch across multiple positions. He’s one of five centers to have defended at least 100 isolations by guards this season.1
Once ambitious shooters are near the rim, Stewart poses ample trouble there, too, ranking 10th among 214 qualified defenders in field-goal percentage allowed near the rim. His adaptability allows teammates such as Hayes, who has a team-high 163 deflections, to attack passing lanes, send timely doubles or offer weak-side help.
Casey, who led the Toronto Raptors to five playoff appearances in seven years, believes the seeds being planted will bear promising fruit for Detroit Pistons basketball soon enough. Creating — let alone restoring — a winning culture takes trial and error. Sound draft-day decisions, free-agency moves and coaching hires are just a few key steps on a franchise’s path to contention. Fortunately for Detroit, there are pieces in place worth building around — with another lottery pick on the way.
“Like I told the players: Forget win-lose,” Casey said after Detroit’s late-season victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. “We want to take that momentum into the summer, take it into the fall to training camp, and let’s bring it back next year, so we know what it feels like.”
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